Where the Yankees stand in the AL East

Romine & Laird keep on hitting as Trenton wins again
Time for the stars to step up

Yesterday’s off-day came at a convenient time. The Yankees just suffered their toughest week of the year, so getting a night away from their struggles is probably a good thing. They’ll pick things up tomorrow night in Minneapolis, starting with a tough assignment against the Twins and then hitting a stretch of schedule where they play just one team above .500 — and even the Blue Jays might be reeling by then. For now, though, let’s take a step back and see where the Yankees stand compared to their AL East peers.

1st Place: Tampa Bay Rays

Longoria will inflict damage on the AL East for years to come | Photo credit: Chris O'Meara/AP

The Rays have come out of the gate quicker than any other team in the majors, and with a 32-13 record are on pace for a 115-win season. Whether they get there will be largely dependent on 1) how they fare against their tougher AL East opponents, and 2) whether they remain reasonably healthy for the rest of the season. For now, though, they remain the kings of the league.

Their ascension — or re-ascension — to the top of the AL East should come as little surprise. The Rays had a good team last year but caught a few unlucky breaks, likely making up for their incredibly lucky 2008. Once Scott Kazmir returned that May they used only five starting pitchers. Last year they only used seven, but Andy Sonnanstine lost his command and Scott Kazmir lost it in general. They’ve used only five starters this year, three of whom have an ERA under 3.00. James Shields is at 3.08. Wade Davis was at 3.35 before the Red Sox tore into him last night. They lead the AL in runs per game allowed by a significant margin.

On the other end, their offense has been killing the ball. Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford have been offensive juggernauts, posting wOBAs of .414 and .392. Ben Zobrist, despite his lack of power, still has a .385 OBP and a .375 wOBA. Like the Yanks, they’ve gotten production from unexpected players. John Jaso, called up to replace the injured Kelly Shoppach at catcher, currently sports a .446 wOBA, and Hank Blalock, recalled from AAA to replace Pat Burrell at DH, has opened his Rays career with a bang. They’re also seeing excellent production from former top prospect Reid Brignac.

On one side, the Rays will certainly lose some of that production. Jaso stands no chance of maintaining his .446 wOBA once he gains more playing time. He’ll be an upgrade over Dioner Navarro, which is all the Rays really need. Blalock might hit decently, but not .407 wOBA good. On the other end, though, both B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena have proven to be better than their current numbers suggest. If they recover it can help offset the effect of Jaso coming back to earth.

Where the Yanks have to be really concerned is with the Rays pitching. Shields and Garza have proven themselves as top performers, and David Price has started looking like a player worth of the top overall pick. Combine that with a second soid year from Jeff Niemann and they don’t need Wade Davis to be lights out. He might be, though, which will cause problems for every team in the AL East — hell, for every team in the majors. I’m not sure if the Rays are this good, but they’re good enough to finish the season with the league’s best record.

2nd Place: New York Yankees

Not that we need to harp on the Yankees, since we do that every day. We know the story: slumping and injured. The pitching, which dazzled early in the season, took a couple of rough turns through the rotation. After the Twins series, though, they hit a patch of lesser teams, during which they should get Granderson and Posada back. If the pitching gets back on track, the Yanks will do just fine from here on out.

3rd Place: Toronto Blue Jays

Romero is trying to make Jays fans forget about Halladay | Photo credit: Mark Duncan/AP

During the off-season, I wrote about no other non-Yanks team more often than the Blue Jays. They’re a fascination of sorts. J.P. Ricciardi never seemed to have a concrete plan in constructing his roster. I’m sure he did, but from afar it didn’t seem like a solid one that would propel the Jays to the front of the AL East. Instead it seemed like he was trying to make little gains every year, and that just won’t happen when the top two teams in the division spend a combined $350 million on payroll.

Like last year, though, it’s unlikely that the Jays are as good as their early season record indicates. They have received unprecedented production from a number of players, and we’re almost certain to see that drop off in the coming months. John Buck and Alex Gonzalez are notably playing above their heads. There is little, if any, chance that either finishes within 20 points of their current wOBA rates, .379 for Buck and .367 for Gonzalez. Their wOBA leader, Vernon Wells, could be for real, though. He has the talent to put up those numbers,

On the other end, though, they have a few underperforming players, Adam Lind chief among them. If he, Lyle Overbay, and Aaron Hill pick up the production they might compensate for the declines of Buck and Gonzalez. I doubt it will be enough to keep them third in the AL in runs per game, but they’ll likely remain above average.

Their pitching has been good, though sprinkled with poor performances. Shaun Marcum and Ricky Romero have both been excellent. They won’t make Toronto fans forget about Roy Halladay, but they’re doing a good job in his stead. Brett Cecil has made some strides this year, and his peripherals look far better than his 4.98 ERA. If Brandon Morrow can manage to stop walking hitters so frequently they could have a more than formidable top of the rotation. The pitching staff could actually be the reason they stay afloat this season and possibly finish above .500.

I never thought I’d type that last sentence before the season started. Shows how much I know.

4th Place: Boston Red Sox

We all hate him, but Youk has given the Yanks fits for years | Photo credit: Elise Amendola/AP

A 25-21 record isn’t terrible for a team that lost two of its outfielders and its No. 1 pitcher for a while, but that’s not what matters right now for the Red Sox. They’re clearly a better team than their record reflects, but games in the bank are games in the bank. Then again, the 2009 Yankees were just one game better, 26-20, through 46 games, so the Sox certainly have a chance. In fact, they found themselves at the same place, six games over .500, a month later. In other words, it would be foolish to count out the Sox right now.

Despite the slow start, despite the focus on defense over offense this off-season, despite injuries to two of its starting outfielders, despite a terrible start for David Ortiz, and despite an equally slow start for Victor Martinez, the Red Sox still rank fourth in the AL in runs scored. Nos. 1 through 3 are all AL East foes. Run scoring has not been even a slight problem for the Sox. In fact, if their run prevention plan had not hit a few bumps in the road, they might be up there with the Rays right now.

Red Sox pitchers, before last night’s game, ranked 13th out of 14 AL teams in runs allowed. John Lackey has had a rough go in Boston so far, and Josh Beckett got off to a horrible start and is now on the DL with back problems. Daisuke Matsuzaka was on the DL to start the season and has been hot and cold since returning. Jon Lester gave up tons of runs in his first few starts, exacerbating the Sox’s woes, though he has more than gotten back on track in his past few. Add to that an effective Clay Buchholz and an unsurprisingly league average Tim Wakefield, and it’s a good rotation that has faced a few unexpected problems.

What scares me about the Sox is that few of their hitters are playing above their heads. A 1.071 OPS would represent a career year for Kevin Youkilis, but he’s still capable of achieving it. Victor Martinez will almost certainly improve on his numbers, too. In other words, the Sox could maintain their offensive production throughout the season. If Lackey turns it around and Beckett comes back fully healthy, well, the Sox could surge like the 2009 Yanks did. They have a long way to go with both the Yanks and the Rays out in front, but I wouldn’t count them out until the math says they’re eliminated.

5th Place: Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles young pitchers, including Brian Matusz, could make the AL East even tougher | Photo credit: Andy King/AP

I didn’t think the Orioles were in for a 2008 Rays-type run, but I didn’t think they’d be this bad. Maybe that’s because I overestimated their young pitching. That’s not a long-term overestimation, though, but merely a short one. Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie have done an admirable job as the veterans on the staff, but all of their young pitchers — Brian Matusz, David Hernandez, and Brad Bergesen — have struggled in the first month and a half of the season. It also doesn’t help that they feature one of the league’s worst bullpens.

As of today, May 25, the Orioles are done. They’ve been done, really, most of the season. That’s not a completely bad thing, though. It affords them the patience necessary to deal with growing pains for Matusz and Bergesen. It also means they can take their time with their other top pitching prospect, Chris Tillman, who has had ups and downs in AAA this season. It might get frustrating when the bullpen blows wins for them, but maybe that will be part of their learning process.

It’s on offense that the Orioles have truly struggled. If not for Ty Wigginton’s unexpectedly insane level of hitting, a .407 wOBA, the Orioles might be in an even worse place right now. Miguel Tejada has been good at times, but on the hole hasn’t been anything special. Adam Jones is having a terrible time this season, as is Nolan Reimold, whom the Orioles recently optioned to AAA (perhaps to play more first base and take over for the horrible Garrett Atkins). Matt Wieters has not impressed with the bat, either. Nick Markakis remains the only other bright spot on the offense, and even he has faced some issues. His .123 ISO isn’t up to his career standard, though his .406 OBP represents an improvement in his discipline from last season.

The Orioles still have a strong group of young players and a good farm to back them up, but this just won’t be their year. With the Yanks, Rays, and Sox established, and the O’s and Jays on the rise, though, we could see quite a battle emerge in the AL East as soon as next year.

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Romine & Laird keep on hitting as Trenton wins again
Time for the stars to step up
  • http://www.puristbleedspinstripes.com Rebecca-Optimist Prime (Optimovelist Primus)

    I knew the Rays would be good, but I’m not sure anyone expected this. Or that Toronto would be this good–it could be one of those years where in any other division, Toronto would have more of a legit shot of winning it.

    Just goes to show, you can’t predict…

    • poster

      I still doubt Toronto keeps this up.

      • http://www.soxandpinstripes.net JGS

        They have played just nine games against New York (0), Boston (6), and Tampa (3).

        They are 2-7 in those nine games

        • Zack

          Plus, Bautista, Wells, and Gonzalez are on pace to hit 40hrs a piece- not going to stay on that pace. So when they stop hitting HRs, and keep having no plate discipline, they will fade.

      • mike c

        not this year, but toronto has a ridiculous amount of draft picks this year. they could very well be building a winning team right now

        • poster

          Possibly.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUvg7Empjfg Captain Jack

            They’ve got some good things going on there…the AL East is going to get VERY VERY VERY VERY tough, really soon. Sooner than expected.

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUvg7Empjfg Captain Jack

      Well this was the first time all year where a starter got knocked out within four innings. That being said, they are an awesome team…that’s only getting better once Desmond Jennings replaces BJ Upton. That rotation may be the best in baseball, top to bottom, Matt Garza, James Shields, David Price, Wade Davis, and Jeff Niemann? That’s just filthy…we can’t hope that they falter, we just have to hope that the Yankees become better than them. As to that? They’ve got a shot, once Granderson gets back and has his rebound that we were all expecting along with Swisher and Posada…that’s a hell of a line up. I still think it’ll take trading for an upgrade at DH (to also help in the OF) and some new relievers. I mean they were fine during most of the rash of injuries…but guys like overperforming like AJ, Andy, Phil, Robbie, Cervelli, and Gardner…they’ll need some extra help too cover the other shoe dropping.

  • http://twitter.com/rebexarama bexarama

    we could see quite a battle emerge in the AL East as soon as next year.

    Because it’s been so easy this year =P

  • A.D.

    One thing on the Rays, what I don’t get is that particularly ESPN has harped several times that this is “the last year for the Rays” with Pena, Soriano, and Crawford looking as FA. Doesn’t make a ton of sense to me as their pitching is likely going to stay together for at least a little longer, and Desmond Jennings is waiting in the wings, and while he won’t be as productive as Crawford immediately, he will likely be productive. Couple that with still having some depth in the minor to potentially go out and get a closer or 1B.

  • poster

    You really predict the Rays to win the division? I still take the Yanks.

    • radnom

      Gotta get healthy first, its a tossup right now.

  • http://www.soxandpinstripes.net JGS

    Has their offense really been killing the ball?

    Longoria: .414–He can probably keep this up. Scary.
    Crawford: .392–Crawford is good, but not .390 wOBA good
    Zobrist: .375–Probably sustainable, though his BABIP is 40 points higher than it was last year
    Brignac: .364

    and then there are these guys:

    Upton: .308–.488 OPS in May. OBP down to .291 and a wOBA even worse than last year’s.
    Bartlett: .300–yikes. That will probably improve
    Pena: .296 (!)
    Hank Blalock has a career .310 wOBA away from Texas

    They are 6th in the league in OPS, but are dominating because…

    Four of their pitchers have BABIPs of .260 or lower (.260 for Garza, .250 for Price, .244 for Garza. Davis’ was .258 going into last night, but that is probably higher now)

    The likelihood of one or more of them pulling a Dice-K and maintaining a BABIP in the .260s for a whole season is not zero (especially with four of them) but sooner or later hits will start falling.

    • http://www.soxandpinstripes.net JGS

      .244 is Niemann, not a second Garza

    • poster

      I agree. Also, we mustn’t forget the injury bug. Right now they’re healthy. But then, the Yankees were healthy once too. While I’m not counting on this for the Yanks to win (I think they could overcome the Rays without any of their major players losing a significant amount of time)it is very rare for a team to go a full year with no major injuries to a key player or two.

      • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUvg7Empjfg Captain Jack

        Well their team is much younger than the Yankees, typically younger players stay healthier than older ones. The Rays also have quite a bit of depth in their farm system to cover the injured players, or acquire someone to cover for them. Like I’ve been saying, the Yankees must improve…acquiring a player to play the OF and DH will go a long ways to bashing their opponents into submission.

        • poster

          Stay healthier longer does not mean perpetually healthy. And players coming up from the farm don’t always do good in their first ML experience. We’ll be fine.

    • http://tommyfusco.efx2blogs.com/ I Collect Brett Gardner Cards

      great observations, J.

    • http://twitter.com/rebexarama bexarama

      their ERA+ is like 150, that’s insane and the likeliness of that continuing isn’t too great. That said, the Rays are still really really really good. Pena is starting to heat up. When he’s bad, he’s bad, but when he’s on, watch the heck out.

      Shields’ BABIP is something like .352 o_O but yeah, the other four have a probably unsustainably low BABIP.

      • http://www.soxandpinstripes.net JGS

        Yea, Shields’ is .352, good for 7th highest in the AL. It should be noted that as of last night, the non-Shields guys were 4th, 6th, 8th, and 10th lowest in the AL

      • http://twitter.com/riddering Riddering

        The Rays’ starters also have the highest LOB% in baseball at 82.4% You jump all the way down to 77.1% with the Padres for the next highest.

        It’ll be interesting to see what happens as teams get a better read on the 2010 Rays (defense and pitching especially) and whether or not this luck changes.

      • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUvg7Empjfg Captain Jack

        The BABIP will rise…you’re right the pitching won’t always be this good, but they still have the best staff in the AL combined with the best defense. I wouldn’t be surprised to see their BABIPs be relatively low all season.

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUvg7Empjfg Captain Jack

      Well…that staff has the lowest FIP and xFIP in the AL…so while they aren’t this good they are still pretty good. Tampa also has the best defense in baseball, so the ERAs should be lower than their FIPs and the BABIPs should be lower than normal. I mean are you honestly surprised that with an OF of Crawford, Upton, and Zobrist combined with an infield of Longoria, Bartlett, Brignac, and Pena that hits don’t drop as much as they do for the average team? Really?

      As to Tampa’s bad hitters: Upton will get replaced by Desmond Jennings soon enough, Bartlett will pick it back up, and Pena still has amazing power…he’ll be fine. You can’t expect this team to falter, you simply have to be better than them…which is possible.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

      Yet they have the second most runs per game in the AL. It’s the combination that warrants domination.

  • Frittoman626

    Fuck the Rays and Red Sox, Yankees will be on top by August

    • Tampa Yankee

      I love this type of logic! Forget everything Joe just wrote and how nicely he laid out the cases for each team because as we all know, THE YANKEES RULE AND EVERYONE ELSE DROOLS!!11!1!

      Now, on a serious note… the Rays are good and while they might not be 115 wins good, they’ll contend all year. The Sox are getting it together. The Yanks need to break out of this slump or they’ll find themselves trying to play catch up. The good thing is, the Yanks were 5 games out on June 24th last year and ran away with the division. Lets hope they don’t wait that long to turn this around.

      • Rose

        The good thing is, the Yanks were 5 games out on June 24th last year and ran away with the division. Lets hope they don’t wait that long to turn this around.

        They can’t afford to do that this year. The Rays weren’t 32-13 and in first place and the Red Sox weren’t 25-21 with a majority of bad pitching performances and an injured outfield.

        They need to break out of the slump or they could find themselves inside a delorean traveling all the way back to 2008. This shit is heavy, Doc.

  • Rose

    Rays
    What’s weird about the Rays is how nasty they were at home in 2008 when they went to the World Series and how mediocre they were on the road (40-41 record) that year. This year is like the opposite. They’re still a very respectable 13-8 at home but they’re a Yankee-esque 19-5 on the road. The rotation is nasty and anybody not named Randy Choate in the bullpen is just as good.

    Red Sox
    The scary thing about the Red Sox is that they have the 3rd worst ERA in the league (*Update: now 4th worst after last night’s gem) and they’re only 2 games behind the Yankees for second place (who have the 4th best ERA in the league). If anything the Yankees pitchers had overperformed at the beginning (along with guys like Gardner and Thames) while the Sox are getting their outfielders back and their pitching is certainly turning it around. Now is certainly not the time for a slump amidst freak injuries.

    Blue Jays
    I don’t know what it is with these guys but they seem to be right in the middle of everything at this time every single year. They lose almost ALL of their young starting pitchers last year…start a bunch of fill-in nobodies…and still lead the league for a few months. This year they lose Halladay and sign a few fill-in defensive replacements (who end up hitting 10 home runs in a single month) and they’re in the swing of things this year too. Hopefully the Yankees snap out of this funk because if they don’t…they can find themselves battling the Orioles for 2nd-to-last place if they don’t.

    Orioles
    Not much to say about these guys. Their pitching stinks every year and one high profile GM once said (not verbatim) “The Orioles have a real bad program over there…they surround the young talent with non-tenders and old washed up guys which doesn’t work.”

    • http://theyankeeu.com Matt Imbrogno

      Now is certainly not the time for a slump amidst freak injuries.

      While I won’t disagree, simply because the Sox are starting to correct a bit, I’d rather a slump happen in May than July. It’s also wroth noting that after the Twins, the Yankees play the Indians, Orioles, and Astros. Those games will be easy chances to get back into the swing of things.

      • Rose

        True. But we just lost a series against the last place New York Mets…

        • http://theyankeeu.com Matt Imbrogno

          And? This is baseball. Good teams lose to bad teams all the time. It happens.

          • Rose

            I’m aware…but you were pointing to the Indians, Orioles, and Astros as a chance to bounce back. I was just simply stating that (using that logic) we could have started doing that against a team like the Mets.

            Hopefully we’ll be fine. I’m not trying to be a party pooper here but the team has looked utterly terrible the past week or so. In all aspects of the game.

            • http://twitter.com/riddering Riddering

              Sure, but it’s baseball to lose a three game series to the Mets. To have a losing streak when the Yanks are facing the weaker teams Matt listed would have a source more definable than just the unpredictability of baseball.